Two tech trade groups sued Texas on Wednesday to block a new state law punish social media platforms for allegedly censoring people for their political views.
Net Choice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association jointly filed the complaint in Federal Court alleging that House Bill 20 violates the First Amendment by forcing companies to give a platform to speech they don’t want to host.
“State governments cannot force social media – Net Choice and CCIA member companies – to deliver content they don’t want to broadcast,” said Steve DelBianco, President and CEO of Net Choice . “This violates the community standards they use to organize an online content community that is suitable for their advertisers and their audience.”
HB 20 was passed by the Texas Legislature in the Second Special Session and came into effect on September 9.
At the heart of the law is an article that would allow users banned by social media for their political views to sue for their reinstatement. If that person cannot find a private attorney, the Texas Attorney General can sue on their behalf.
The lawsuit argues that platforms have the First Amendment right to retain content and decide whether or not to host specific instances of speech as they see fit. He argues that HB 20 does not prevent censorship, but instead allows the state of Texas to monitor and control online speech.
DelBianco said the law, as drafted, would prevent social media platforms from banning what he called “horrible but legal” speech, to the detriment of underage users.
“YouTube could no longer restrict a video posted by a user that included hateful, racist and sexual content that was totally inappropriate for children,” DelBianco said. “He couldn’t mark it as restricted, even in homes in Texas where parents had voluntarily turned on restricted mode, specifically to protect their children.”
The executive added that there were a number of other cases of sheltered speech that nonetheless violated corporate terms and conditions, including misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, anti-Semitism and pornography.
The lawsuit also contends that HB 20 violates the rights of the Fourteenth Amendment to equal protection under law and due process, as well as the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to regulate the interstate commerce.
“These are arguments you see frequently when a state crosses borders and tries to regulate private sector discourse, and that’s exactly what’s happening here,” CCIA President Matthew Schruers said.
HB 20 adopted largely along partisan lines. Republican lawmakers produced the measure in response to the shutdown of conservative social media accounts by Twitter and Facebook, such as those used by former President Donald Trump. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to punish companies that have removed Tories from their platforms for legitimate reasons.
The bill’s sponsors, including State Senator Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, have argued that social media platforms are not the functional equivalent of newspapers and broadcast companies. Rather, they are the equivalent of public carriers, such as cable and telephone service providers, and as such, are subject to regulation to prevent them from discriminating against customers based on their views.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced his support for a precursor to HB 20 in March, arguing that social media companies restricting or banning users because they held conservative views was a violation of free speech.
“Social media sites have become our modern public places where information should be able to flow freely, but social media companies now act as judge and party to determine which views are valid,” Abbott told the ‘era.
This isn’t the first time Net Choice and the CCIA have teamed up to challenge a social media censorship law. In May, the two organizations filed a lawsuit to block a similar law enacted in Florida. A federal judge ruled in favor of the groups, blocking parts of Florida law that violated the First Amendment.
“When the state’s own attorneys cannot explain how the law works or even identify to whom it applies, Florida’s enforcement of the law cannot protect users, creators and advertisers of the law. tidal wave of offensive content and hate speech that would surely follow, ”said Carl Szabo, vice president and legal counsel for Net Choice, following the June ruling.
This story was produced by Houston Public Media.